x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Egypt's banned TV stations use state unit for broadcasts

Banned journalists commandeer abandonded mobile broadcasting unit and transmit content on a frequency that can be picked up by other channels. Alice Fordham reports from Cairo

The blue broadcast truck of Egypt's state television, “borrowed” by banned Islamist channels to send news of their sit-in from the Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque in Cairo.
The blue broadcast truck of Egypt's state television, “borrowed” by banned Islamist channels to send news of their sit-in from the Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque in Cairo.

CAIRO// The sit-in for supporters of the deposed president is a ramshackle affair, with a platform hastily constructed from old wood, barriers cobbled together out of furniture, and people sleeping on flour sacks.

But sitting incongruously among the shambles is a bright blue state television transmission van. Its tall satellite mast rises up alongside the minaret of the Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque, and around it is a buzz of activity as broadcast technicians step over the prone bodies of those taking Ramadan snoozes.

This is the media centre at the sit-in supporting Mohammed Morsi, where bright, committed men and women explain tirelessly to journalists that they consider his removal by the military to be a coup and that they are defending a democratic system they feel has been derailed.

They stroke iPads, update Facebook pages, and tweet constantly.

They are also, surreptitiously, sending video footage to television channels.

"Yes, we are broadcasting," admits Ahmed Arif, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mr Morsi draws most of his support. "We are transmitting what's going on here - we can't broadcast from other places."

When Egypt's military announced on July 3 that Mr Morsi was no longer president, the Muslim Brotherhood's channel, Misr25, abruptly went blank. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that black-clad special forces stormed into the station and arrested 23 journalists, detaining them overnight.

Ahmed Abuzeid, the head of news at Al Agmal channel, said that his and seven other channels were also closed that night, including the Al Jazeera channel devoted to live coverage of Egyptian events. In a country where media generally makes no secret of political affiliations, most of the channels were known for their Islamist leanings, with some taking a harder, Salafist line.

The interior ministry said that the stations were broadcasting incitements to violence, something the journalists have denied.

Their outlets shut down, their equipment damaged, their desire to tell their side of the story greater than ever, about ten of the broadcasters, presenters and technicians from Misr25, Al Agmal and others went underground.

"The people here are coming from a professional background, some have come from the channels which have shut down," said Yousef Tallat, a spokesman for the newly formed National Council for Supporting Legitimacy. "Our job is to document every event."

The new authorities, he said, had prevented the country's media from broadcasting live from the sit-in, and so they film their protests and broadcast them on a frequency that can be accessed free by other channels.

Working on a volunteer basis, they also transmitted amateur film of violence at dawn on Monday that killed 51 people, and a presenter from Misr25 appears occasionally to send messages to the United States president, Barack Obama, to stop funding the Egyptian military.

"Every 10 to 15 minutes we get disturbances in the transmission," Mr Tallat said, attributing the interference to military attempts to stop broadcasts. Young engineers, he said, have been clever about finding ways around the interference.

But they would not be able to operate, had they not commandeered a mobile-broadcast unit belonging to the state television channel, left behind by a crew during demonstrations against Mr Morsi before he was relieved of his position.

"This is the public television of Egypt" said Mr Abuzeid of Al Agmal channel. "It is supported by the money of all the citizens, they need to see these things." Also, he added admiringly, the broadcast van was modern and brand-new.

Some of the state television, Mr Tallat reckoned, did not mind what was happening.

"Only the people who are afraid of seeing the truth are angry," he said. "The others are happy."

Mr Abuzeid's television station received information earlier this week that it could start broadcasting again, he said. But with damaged equipment, ransacked archives and a sudden official concern about expired licences on editing software, he said they were still effectively prevented from working.

"The picture I can transmit, I am transmitting," said Mr Arif, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman. He would like to be above-board in his work but unfortunately, he said, he does not have that option at the moment.

"The blame is not with us," he said. "The blame is with the person who shut the stations down."


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